Category Archives: Literature

A Scientific Perspective to Complement the Philosophical

This video, from a favourite news source of mine, details the reasons why fiction is so helpful to the brain, and so important for our development. Just watch it. You’ll see.

Also, here’s the link to a previous blog post which specifically explains the idea behind fiction:

http://wp.me/p44y5q-7E

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The Philosophy of Victory – Machiavelli and Sun Tzu

Two great books, two timeless texts, two manuals on the differences between victory and defeat, success and failure. These two texts, I believe, cannot be read separately. I myself finished them both this December and found them to be everything I imagined them to be.

A short background: Machiavelli was a Renaissance court employee who bore witness to the daily affairs and politics of Europe’s leaders. He saw the way they handled themselves both in war and in peace and observed the traits which ended up leading to their success. While being a nice guy himself, he came to the conclusion that to succeed as a leader (or Prince), one has to be ruthless, conniving, bribe-happy and, most importantly, rule by terror, as opposed to love. Sun Tzu was a famous Chinese general who seemed to win every battle he was involved in. He collected and wrote an anthology of texts explaining the art of war, and how careful planning is to go into every battle. He outlined how and when to attack, when to retreat, how to deceive one’s opponent and how to ensure victory every time.

Why it’s important today if these two men lived 400 and 2600 years ago: The lessons learned from these texts extend to canvass far more than just the art of ruling a kingdom or fighting a battle. They are manuals of management for any environment, from managing a restaurant, to running a family, to building a corporate giant.

It goes without saying that there’s so much win in these two books that successfully applying either of them can ensure that your life will be one big victory pie. But it’s not that simple.

Lessons from each book which I thought were interesting:

The very first thing Sun Tzu said: “The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death,  a road to either safety or ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”

The very first thing on the agenda is to assert a huge contradiction to the attitude which dominates western thought. When in a state of war, you cannot ignore the uncomfortable things. War is itself a brutal affair. One cannot worry about how to treat the prisoners when the war has not been won yet, or ignore all of the possible dirty tricks one’s enemy may attempt, simply because that wouldn’t be fair. When in a state of war – in business, or in actual war – you cannot choose to ignore certain details in the hope that your enemy will also ignore them. If you do not choose to consider every possible betrayal and low move, those will be the things that surely lead to your demise. If you do not actively take those options into your strategy, then you will be disadvantaged throughout the fight. This is a rule that is ruthlessly applied to the corporate environment, but in everyday ‘moralistic’ life, people choose to ignore this fact, and pretend life is good, virtuous and easy. Unthinkable acts are just that: unthinkable. That’s all well and good if you’re a simple citizen, but if you want to play the big game and if you want to win, Sun Tzu says that you should, at some point, come to the realisation that going all out is the only rule. Failure to go all out will result in failure across the board.

Machiavelli likes to go on about the best possible way to ensure that your rule is long-lived and successful after the initial victory, rather than just looking at how to defeat the enemy’s army, which is why I think his philosophy complements that of Sun Tzu very well. The most intriguing lesson he brought forward was the effectiveness of two opposing methods of maintaining control over one’s kingdom: terror and love. Terror implies ensuring that your subordinates know that double-crossing you or under-performing at their jobs means harsh punishment, while love implies debauchery and a benevolent rule which benefits them, and thus results in an obligation to you. The problem that surfaces with the method of love is that when things get tough, and you are no longer able to supply your subordinates with a lavish lifestyle or keep low taxes, they will not be so loyal and will quickly get used to the idea of treachery, while a rule of terror will ensure their submission and loyalty no matter the situation.

A man is only as good as the books he reads. So read these books.

I’ll be writing again soon, I hope. Stay tuned/connected.

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A Must Read: Freakonomics

How does one draw common qualities between sumo-wrestling and teaching in the USA? Well, Levitt can do it.

Here’s  a TED video where Levitt talks about one of the many topics he covers in Freakonomics.

The book titled Freakonomics is the result of combining the brilliant creative vision of a left-brainer with the know-how of a fully trained economic analyst. If you ever want to develop a decent understanding of the world and its dynamics, you have to read this book. They have also published other books following this one. If you wish to read them all, I encourage you to do so, but at the very least, read one of them and understand the message behind it.

Enjoy.

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Fictional Literature’s Role in the Real World

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world – P. B. Shelley

Shelley

While Shelley was obviously a little biased for poetry, I believe what he said, but I extend it out to the genre of fiction as well, which is closely tied to poetry and all literature which embraces the obscure and the abstract.

One of the most annoyingly incorrect statements one can make is that fiction is a waste of time, an unnecessary hobby of mankind which we could do without. I cannot express through the written word how that statement frustrates me. But, I find solace in the fact that it is usually exclaimed obnoxiously and with false confidence by those who know next to nothing of reading and literature in general, or by 4chan’s /lit/ page, for which I still haven’t forgiven them.

Here’s the truth :

Fiction of all kinds acts as a kind of time capsule in a way that non-fiction cannot. It preserves the mannerisms and cultural idiosyncrasy of an epoch within the pages of a book, or the lines of a poem without ever emphasising them. It is a masterful skill, a difficult thing to do with success. It requires absurdity from the very beginning, or it will collapse simply from being unoriginal. It ironically creates another, separate era which does not exist and places those mannerisms within it in such a way that the true culture can be observed, scrutinised, and critically analysed.

By rejecting the relatively temporary surroundings of its contemporaneous age, a fictional work affords itself the ability to stand the test of time. By giving itself a unique setting, a fictional work can be understood universally and across different cultural ages. Consider the fact that literature is itself a means to empathy. This definition would thus place fiction at the pinnacle of all literature.

This is what Shelley thought, just for the augmented insight:

Poetry comes from the erudite and the thoughtful. When a system is in dire need of change, it is the poets who trigger this change through their poetry. They change minds, liberate thoughts and foster dissent against that which would oppress the otherwise oblivious man. As he describes the thought racing through everyone’s heads in Mask of Anarchy, Shelley shows us how overwhelmingly powerful an idea can be compared to, say, brute violence and undirected anger, which usually ruins more than it can fix.

What is your favourite genre of literature and why? Comment like you’re being paid for it.

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Extract from ‘War of the Element’

This was one of my favourite moments to write. It depicts the first naval battle to ever occur in a hundred years of war. I was inspired by the concept of the ‘risks were too great, and the potential gain too small’, which was mirrored in WW1 when the world’s souped up navies only actually participated in one major naval battle in a five year war. Compared to WW2, where half the damn war took place at sea, and dozens of ships went down at a time and were simply rebuilt.

Well, here’s the piece. It describes Vorith’s newly selected war council, as permitted by the democratic leaders of the Inner System. One of them makes it onto this council for the merit of being a veteran and a politician. The rest are inept at being wartime leaders, and Vorith knows that. Ignis is not really involved in the broader strategic thoughts on the war. However, his task is such that he needs to know what’s going on, and thus receives a seat on the council.

—–

The Quasar fired the first shell of the battle. Over three million fleet personnel thought briefly of their families, their parents, their lovers, or their children. The sound rang through the halls of the Inner System flagship, signalling the beginning of the second most decisive battle in history, while others saw the shell hurtling through space with ballistics detection. Space warfare was counter-intuitive. While thousands of tonnes of explosives were being fired in bizarre proportions and speeds, silence reigned in the void, only disturbed minutes after the battle had truly begun as the first of the missiles penetrated an escort ship’s hull, rending the left side of it and tearing the life from its interior.

The sun shone coldly on the scene. Its weak rays bombarded the frozen bodies suspended in space. Some were punted out of the way by the lumbering ships, travelling at only several hundred kilometres an hour. It was dreadfully slow in the vastness of space. From deep within the confines of The Quasar, Vorith received reports and plotted his next moves. With the help of a hand-selected council, he had successfully maintained a powerful grip on the situation. General Shellet was his new right-hand man. Not only had he proven his worth as an able soldier, but his prowess as a man between the political and military spectrum in the last few months had revealed him to be an asset like no other.

Other members of Vorith’s war council included the first-man of The Quasar (simply because the captain was far too busy commanding his own vessel), the Captain of The Nebulous Spirit (The Inner System’s prototype stealth-ship), as well as Lucas, the only political leader to be invited into Vorith’s war council. Four other generals were included too, though Vorith had a sour gut-feeling when it came to them. They didn’t seem to care much about anything, and had what was commonly called ‘tunnel vision’. However, Vorith couldn’t hope to command the entire military unquestionably unless he had orders coming down from every high-level leader.

Finally, at the end of the table sat Ignis. The heat that radiated from him appeared intense, but really settled into an ambient warmth. Nothing he touched burned.

In a cacophony of silence, the ships played out their roles, zapping warheads in mid-space and firing their own back at the enemy. Ship after ship was destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in a second, and a million more in another. The fight continued for a week, a week of constant tension, of knowing that one’s life depended on the whims of chance. Slowly, by process of blunt attrition and slow strategic manoeuvres, the Outer System fleet was whittled down. It was comparable to a week-long game of chess, with thousands of pieces on the board, but enough time to ensure that each one was in its most advantageous position. Vorith had never played this kind of game before. It was the largest naval battle in history, but he trusted his instinct and the strategic advice from his council, and it seemed to be working.

—–

Needless to say,

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Brontë took Literature to new Heights!

What’s the difference between Emily and her sisters? What makes her better than every other female writer at the time?

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This novel felt to me like the first modern romance. I’m not usually a fan of romance writing. In fact, I’m sure this was the first romance I’ve ever read. But something about Emily Brontë makes her stand out. She seems totally exclusive from the other writers of the time. I never like to read a classic as important as Wuthering Heights without learning a bit about the author – so I did just that. We’ll leave the poetry for now and focus on Wuthering Heights. Here are my findings:

There are several reasons for Emily’s outlandish writing style and philosophies. Firstly, Emily, like the characters in Wuthering Heights, lived a remote and secluded life out in the countryside. She was never exposed to the bustling proletarian life of Victorian England and lived comfortably and with great wealth in the countryside. This was important for her unique train of thought, as it led her away from the very typical ‘social revolutionary’ style of just about every other female writer in England, who was jostling for a place in the movement which would one day lead to women’s enfranchisement. As good as it was for women, it unfortunately obligated every writer to somehow entangle this movement in her writing, which made much of their literature very similar in thought.

The second important fact of Emily’s life was that her father was incredibly progressive. He insisted that his daughters be educated and that they persist through life with a thirst for knowledge – which they indeed carried through, playing vocabulary games as girls growing up, while urban Victorian women might have begun searching for a husband to settle down at the same age.

Finally, and most importantly, the last factor which led to Emily’s greatest work was the fact that she frequently observed and experienced early death. All around her, in almost constant succession, her family members died of illness. She herself passed away at a very young age and her book was not acknowledged as a classic until many decades after her death. In fact, her older sister Charlotte experienced greater literary success during their lifetimes.

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Now, onto the novel itself. Despite the ‘romance’ genre it is assigned, it’s not very romantic. In fact, this is an apt summary of the plot: Heathcliff kills everyone, be it by regular beatings or by slow, emotional erosion, including Catherine (the love of his life), until he eventually does the same thing to himself.

While it’s quite normal for readers to hate him, he is the reason for the novel’s success. In Charlotte’s (Emily’s sister) opinion, the reader is constantly waiting for Heathcliff to forget his hateful vendetta and simply resign to the fact that his love, Catherine, is dead. The reader expects him to turn around at every moment and try to redeem the damage he has already done, to feign some sort of righteousness in the name of love and shout out to the ghost of Catherine that he is sorry.

It never happens. He remains the devil incarnate, rampaging, shouldering, extorting, blackmailing and coercing his way into the lives of everyone at The Grange and at Wuthering Heights, until there is scarcely anything left. After decades of tormenting everyone, he drives himself mad and dies of (starvation, cold and illness, love sickness) one of those. I’m not really sure. Perhaps all of them.

Upon his death, everyone in the area literally breathes a sigh of relief. Finally we reach the somewhat happy ending, which is romantic in a way, but far from idealised. His deceased love, Catherine, had a child with her husband, Linton, who you can imagine was never liked by Heathcliff. Their child’s name is also Catherine. Heathcliff experiences a great deal of confusion around her. She has a strong resemblance of her mother, but is the child of another man and represents Heathcliff’s failure to live a long, happy life with Catherine. Indeed, he is both filled with old emotions when he sees her face and hates her at the same time. He attempts over many years to destroy her lineage by getting her interested in his own son and thus have his own lineage take over Catherine’s husband’s.

However, Heathcliff’s son is frail and ill, a metaphor for the twisted circumstances  in which he was conceived, and for the fact that he only exists to serve a greater purpose of destruction for Heathcliff. When the young boy dies, Catherine takes a liking to Hareton, who she teaches to read. Once Heathcliff dies soon after, nothing stops them from having a happy life together. For the first time in the novel, the reader feels something other than ‘What is that crazy bastard Heathcliff going to do now?’

I’m supposing the moral story here is that Heathcliff’s corruptive and sinister power is eventually trumped by Catherine’s will to live and spread joy. In the time leading to her death, she claims that Heathcliff killed her on an emotional level, her daughter continues her lineage and ultimately outlives Heathcliff. This is NOT, I believe, a ‘love overcomes all’ novel. In fact, I believe it has little to do with love itself. It’s more like a power play. That’s fine. That’s what I like about it. It really takes a different swing to the same issue, and that’s why Emily’s novel is a classic and other romance novels aren’t. And it only took society about a century to figure that out!

What do I really like about this novel? It’s not the fact that it’s unique, or the fact that it’s well-written. Hell, I don’t like to read any novels from that era unless I have to! What I really liked about this book was its perception of love. I believe we are fed too much Hollywood falsehood with regards to love, and my generation ,and indeed the generation before mine, has grown up thinking that love is infallible, perfect, ideal, an end rather than a symptom of something else entirely. I don’t like that at all, because when we are faced with the real ‘true love’, especially in high-grade literature, I find all the soft-hearted ladies in my class yelling at the top of the voices that this isn’t love.

‘Heathcliff cannot love! He’s evil!’

‘They cannot love, it’s such a terrible situation, where would one find love?’

I saw the same thing happen in T. Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Stella loves her rather brutal husband, Stanley. We know this. Yet he beats her occasionally and dominates her emotionally and physically. She puts up with it and loves him unconditionally. This seems counter-intuitive to what we are used to, and that fact in itself is a failure on our part. When looking at literature, one cannot wait for the perfect love to arise. Then you have even more socially incorrect instances of love like V. Nabokov’s Lolita. Doesn’t get weirder than that, yet it is love without a doubt.

So here’s the greatest symbolism I extracted for myself from Wuthering Heights and from many other stories: True love is not ideal, or perfect. It is twisted. It is strained. True love can exist in an environment that is not conducive to love. Not only can it exist, but it grows stronger and the bonds are tighter than they ever could be in a happy suburban home. Tell me your thoughts in the comments if you wish.

I’ve included some other blog post relating to Wuthering Heights and the issues surrounding it:

 

Please like my literature posts if (and only if) you want to see more literature, and longer posts with deeper analysis. I feel like this length may not be well suited to blogging.

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George Orwell’s 1984

A heartbreaking, gut-wrenching novel. If I were a little more melodramatic, I might have fallen to my knees and wept.

Some Background Info:

1984 is a speculative story about a totalitarian world. Imagine every fascist, communist and demonic creature ever conceived and smash them together with a hadron collider. The product of this twisted experiment would be called ‘The Party’. This party is impregnable, infallible, indefatigable. They annihilate their enemies and destroy the world’s hopes of freedom, equality and most importantly, progress. They change  history as they see fit and there’s nothing – absolutely nothing – you can do to stop them. All for sheer power. There is no means, there is no ideology, there is nothing to stand for. They literally want power and nothing else. What’s more, they’ve conditioned the population to love them for it.

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I am not a light-hearted reader. In fact, being South African, I am by default exposed to some of the most raw and unfiltered literature in the world. Books like Antjie Krog”s Country of My Skull cover some gruesome human rights violations. Besides that, I love reading all sorts of gory Science Fiction from all over the place. This novel was above that. It went beyond individual human despair and destroyed the very idea of freedom with no hope of bringing it back. I have known the word ‘nihilism’ for a long time. I’ve even explored many facets of it (on an academic level), but I’d never had a sample of the hopelessness and despair that came with it. I now can say I’ve experienced the aftertaste of nihilism. It’s not pleasant. Damn.

It’s a very rare occurrence when something moves me this much, so I couldn’t leave it alone, I had to blog about it, despite wanting to reserve blogging on literature for later.

To all seven people who end up seeing my blog, have you read 1984? If not, what have you read that you would place on a similar level, compared to what I’ve described above? Do you enjoy reading literature that does not give  a solution at the end, that leaves one with a question rather than an answer?

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